Back in the early 1980s, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas sponsored a U.S. release of Akira Kurosawa's ''Kagemusha.'' Now John Lasseter -- the leading mind behind Pixar's ''Toy Story'' films -- is playing ambassador for another Japanese movie master: Hayao (pronounced ''Ha-yah-oh'') Miyazaki, an animation writer-director who's as popular in his own country as he is obscure here.
Disney is issuing two older Miyazaki films -- ''Castle in the Sky'' and ''Kiki's Delivery Service'' -- in tandem with Spirited Away, Oscar's Best Animated Feature. Though Lasseter introduces all three on DVD in the same loud-patterned shirt, he declares ''Spirited Away'' is his favorite.
It's not hard to see why. Filled with a subtlety of expression, ''Spirited Away,'' which depicts a weird-as-David Lynch fantasy world with astonishing specificity, marks a new zenith in Miyazaki's style. The story is basically ''Alice in Wonderland'': Mopey 10-year-old Chihiro finds herself in a hostile alternate universe where her yuppie parents have become pigs, and she must navigate treacherous tests of loyalty and resolve to rescue them.
Lasseter helped oversee an English-language soundtrack, featuring distinctly American voices like Daveigh Chase (''Lilo & Stitch'') as Chihiro and Suzanne Pleshette as the creepy good-and-bad-twin witches Zeniba and Yubaba. But lots of story elements don't translate so well -- for example, the central setting of a giant bathhouse where wandering spirits come to rejuvenate themselves. Where's the DVD supplement explaining all these Japanese cultural references? Nowhere to be found among infomercial-style paeans to the movie.